Accessibility links

2001 In Review: The Last Full Year Of Federal Yugoslavia?

  • Jolyon Naegele

As 2001 draws to a close and the world marks the 10th anniversary of the disintegration of the former Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union, the rump Yugoslav federation of Serbia and Montenegro may well be concluding its last full year of existence. RFE/RL correspondent Jolyon Naegele reports that the current federal arrangement, a legacy of the Slobodan Milosevic era, is dysfunctional.

Prague, 13 December 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The ouster of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic more than 14 months ago has dampened Montenegro's chances of gaining independence, though prospects remain good for some sort of a redefinition of the relationship between Montenegro and Serbia.

Montenegro, the junior partner in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, is deeply divided between those who want independence and those who want to maintain a common state with the Serbs.

Those favoring a federation tend to have supported Milosevic and Serb ultranationalist Vojislav Seselj or else are members of Montenegro's Muslim community living near the border with Serbia. They fear independence would divide and weaken their community.

Montenegro's citizens will likely have a chance to express their opinions in a referendum on independence next year.

But it's unclear what effect that vote will have.

Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica, a constitutional lawyer by profession, has ruled out holding a federation-wide referendum on the Serbian-Montenegrin relationship until Serbia has a new constitution. And he says there can be no new constitution "until it is clear whether Serbia will be an independent state or remain part of the federation with Montenegro."

The international community, which earlier praised Montenegro for its pro-Western stance during the Milosevic regime, has had a change of heart and no longer backs independence.

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell set the tone earlier this year when he declined to meet with Montenegro's pro-independence President Milo Djukanovic in Washington.

As the year draws to a close, the international community has only become more convinced of the need to keep Montenegro and Serbia together in a common state.

The European Union's commissioner for foreign and security policy, Javier Solana, threw cold water on Montenegro's aspirations of independence in November when, during a visit to Podgorica, he said the EU prefers Montenegro to stay within a democratic Yugoslavia. Solana said Montenegrins are deluding themselves if they think they will join the EU accession process any faster as an independent state.

Kostunica, for whom a breakup of Yugoslavia would mean being out of a job, expressed relief at Solana's words: "We have once again been encouraged by the support of Europeans and the European Union for the integrity of Yugoslavia and...the opposition to any further disintegration of Balkans and southeast region, that means fragmentation into new small states."

Solana's warning was reinforced in December during a visit to Belgrade by French President Jacques Chirac.

Chirac was as blunt as Solana: "France and the European Union support a democratic Montenegro in a democratic Yugoslavia." Chirac warned against what he termed the "anachronistic" process of disintegration. Chirac said the EU is not about to foot the bill for the referendum or its consequences or even recognize an independent Montenegro.

Despite the Western stance against independence, Djukanovic is adamant about holding a referendum in the spring. He says he will resign if a majority rejects independence.

In the meantime, he says, a dialogue should be opened with Belgrade: "We'll proceed with a dialogue with Serbia on all the possible options of our future relations and on the possible consequences of independence for Serbia and Montenegro, as well as the resolution of specific issues that the two independent states would raise. We'll launch these discussions [over] the course of December, and I hope to end them with some sort of democratic epilogue so we can reach an agreement in the first months of the new year."

Serbia is keenly interested in preserving a common state for political and economic reasons, but also on sentimental grounds. Montenegro is Serbia's only remaining outlet to the sea and, though Montenegro's tourism industry remains frozen in time, it has the potential to be a big money-earner. Most Serbs and Montenegrins share a common religion and speak dialects of the same language.

But in addition to this, Montenegrin independence could lead to further fragmentation in the Balkans. With Montenegro gone, Belgrade could lose its claim to Kosovo. The international community recognizes Kosovo as "de jure," or by right, a part of Yugoslavia, but does not recognize the Serbian annexation of the province.

If Montenegro were to leave Yugoslavia, Kosovar Albanian leaders would likely respond with a speedy declaration of independence of their own.

Kosovo's departure, in turn, could lead to the disintegration of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Some Bosnian Serb politicians have threatened to pull their entity out of Bosnia and either declare independence or else forge a much closer relationship with Serbia.

And it is far from clear how the northern region of Vojvodina, which lost its autonomy in 1989, would fare with rump Serbia in the event of the departure of Montenegro and Kosovo.

Vojvodina, with large populations of ethnic Hungarians, Croats, Slovaks, and Romanians, became a refuge for Serbs fleeing war zones during the 1990s. Some 200,000 Serbs, or about 10 percent of Vojvodina's 2 million inhabitants, are Serb refugees.

Their continued presence and the emigration of tens of thousands of Vojvodina Croats and Hungarians have tipped the ethnic scales further in the Serbs' favor while raising the ire of non-Serb communities in the province.

The Hungarians, who make up about 15 percent of Vojvodina's population, are among the most vociferous supporters of greater autonomy for the province.

Hungary's ambassador to Yugoslavia, Jozsef Pandur, speaking in early December in Pozarevac, said, "There have been big changes since [Milosevic's fall from power on] 5 October of last year in the area of human rights and of the ethnic minority communities in Yugoslavia. A few problems remain -- certain regulations and laws from the previous regime still haven't been changed. But in general we are satisfied with the situation of Hungarians in Yugoslavia and Vojvodina [in particular]. As far as Vojvodina's transformation, the Hungarians support decentralization of the FRY [Federal Republic of Yugoslavia]. Hungarians support an autonomous Vojvodina, just as Hungary supports the return to the province of a substantial part of its autonomy."

Even many indigenous Serbs, viewing themselves historically as part of Central Europe rather than the Balkans, demand substantial autonomy from Belgrade.

In October, the speaker of Vojvodina's assembly and the province's leading advocate of autonomy, Nenad Canak, seized control of the state television facilities in the capital, Novi Sad. Canak tore down the "Radio Television Serbia" emblem and stomped on it, declaring that TV Novi Sad was founded by and belongs to Vojvodina's assembly and should serve the interests of its citizens.